A flash forward for government data

A flash forward for government data

Eager to break free from the inefficiencies and inadequacies of existing data center infrastructure, government IT professionals, particularly those in the Department of Defense, are seeking new ways to streamline and reduce costs in their data centers without running afoul of necessary security and protections. And they may be looking to flash drives to help.

With the Aug. 1 release of the Office of Management and Budget’s decisive Data Center Optimization Initiative, all government agencies are required to “develop and report on data center strategies to consolidate inefficient infrastructure, optimize existing facilities, improve security posture, achieve cost savings, and transition to more efficient infrastructure, such as cloud services and inter-agency shared services.” But federal agencies, including DOD, face a couple of major obstacles as they vie to both become more efficient and keep their data quickly accessible and secure.

“A lot of organizations are moving their data to the cloud, but sometimes [data] needs to stay within the confines of the agency,” Steve Wallo, chief solutions architect at network provider Brocade Federal, said. “And, getting access to that data, they often have to make decisions very, very quickly. Getting access to mission-critical data is a big challenge.”

Steven Sarnecki, vice president for the federal and public sector for software developer OSIsoft, agreed that “one of the biggest challenges facing DOD in using their data centers for intelligence sharing is keeping them operational and maintaining the requisite connectivity 24-7-365.”

“In many ways, the data center is the core of today’s modern military,” Sarnecki said. “From intelligence and data storage to mission-critical applications, the DOD today relies on data centers as much as, if not more than, the Army relied on horses in the 19th century.”

The Pentagon’s need to potentially access massive volumes of data at high speeds is compounded by the fact that “this data is also classified for different levels of access across a large number of different systems spread across numerous locations,” Christian Heiter, CTO of engineering for Hitachi Data Systems Federal, explained. “Whether it’s the DOD or any other user, a key component to better intelligence sharing is upfront planning on how to best organize, architect and categorize data.”

It is here that Wallo and other industry insiders believe that flash storage could help. While previously relegated only for use on “tier one” data -- information that might need to be accessed very quickly or is deemed most mission-critical -- the declining cost of flash drives is making the technology more practical for a wider array of storage uses. Flash drives, in essence, make getting to and sharing data more efficient and faster than spinning disk drives, which means federal agencies could store more data in less space and access it faster.

And flash storage is much faster, as well as less expensive, than it used to be -- about 71 percent faster than the technology was three years ago, Wallo estimated.

Flash storage is becoming much more widespread within DOD because of its performance advantages and reduced power consumption compared to spinning media and other storage technologies, Heiter said. “This can lower the day-to-day costs associated with data center operations if the data is effectively organized.”

While Heiter acknowledged that flash storage does have a higher cost per gigabyte, he said that factor should trigger upfront planning during the consolidation process. “DOD data architects will need to give thought to how to best use their flash storage for their most important and frequently used data,” he said, and “less expensive, slower storage for less frequently used data.”

Even before the data center initiative was announced, Brocade in mid-July launched its own collection of networking storage products to meet the increasing demand for all-flash data centers, in the public and private sectors, its Gen 6 director family. “The need for shared storage over high-performance storage networks will continue into foreseeable future with customers continuing to need greater bandwidth and lower latency,” Randy Kerns, senior strategist for the Evaluator Group, said in Brocade’s July announcement.

Sarnecki said he believes that technology advances and price reductions in flash storage, along with improved data aggregation, “can help ensure DOD data centers are in peak performance and not liable to unexpected failure.” By integrating sensors from inside data center operations -- from the micro level of individual components and racks to the macro level of cooling systems and energy metering -- data center managers can have a full, real-time overview of data center health and performance, he added.

About the Author

Karen Epper Hoffman is a freelance writer based in the Seattle area.

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